On Monday, Dec. 20, there were 717 inmates on death row in California when one of them, a 42-year-old man, was found unresponsive in his cell and died. Excluding him, since California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, 52 death row inmates have died of natural causes and 18 have committed suicide, while the state has only executed 13.

The capital punishment system here is a costly, inefficient government program. It’s so under-funded that about half of the state’s death row inmates are still waiting for lawyers. With the death penalty facing opposition from a growing chorus of people and nations, it’s time to end it.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can help. In what little time he has left in office, he can give his legacy a considerable boost by commuting the state’s hundreds of pending death sentences to life in prison without possibility of release. As a Los Angeles resident on the world’s stage, he should be sensitive to his image at home and abroad.

The leading example of an outgoing governor commuting death sentences is George Ryan of Illinois in 2003. Gov. Ryan was facing corruption allegations at the time, and some people say he never would have commuted those sentences if he wasn’t so worried about how people would remember him. But his two successors have maintained a moratorium on executions, and last month both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times published editorials calling for an end to the death penalty in Illinois.

Gov. Schwarzenegger does not have legacy worries like Ryan’s, and his movie career may push most of his governorship from collective memory. But it’s fair to say his time in office didn’t work out as well as he hoped. He might want to embrace the last-minute chance to get on what will likely be the right side of history on a major issue.

The tide is turning against the death penalty. Newspapers and websites provide report after report of dysfunction in the capital punishment system. The United Nations General Assembly voted last month in favor of a worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty; support increased and opposition declined since a similar resolution was adopted in 2007. Los Angeles County voters just spurned their own pro-death penalty district attorney in favor of a candidate for state attorney general who promised to enforce the law, but forthrightly told voters she would rather not.

In 2006, the League of Women Voters of the United States adopted a position calling for the abolition of the death penalty. League positions are based on member study and consensus, and members found numerous problems with continuing the policy of killing some convicts. The capital punishment system was unfair and affected by error to an extent the league found unacceptable. Flaws such as false testimony, eyewitness error, prosecutorial misconduct and arbitrariness of application could not be adequately reformed by legislation. The death penalty was not a deterrent. Resources expended for the death penalty could be better used for programs to reduce crime and serve the victims of crime.

In California, the number of inmates condemned but not executed in California has increased steadily in recent years, more than doubling from 308 at the end of 1991 to 681 at the end of 2009. And now it’s well over 700. That the state has executed only 13 convicts since 1978 makes much of the system (special phases of trials, mandatory appeals) seem like a costly charade.

The League of Women Voters’ position against the death penalty is based on facts, figures and policy arguments. League members generally like to stick to those tools when trying to persuade decision makers. But in the realm of politics, feelings matter. Despite some of his movie roles, Arnold Schwarzenegger is not a robotic killer. His constituency is worldwide, and worldwide opinion would back him up if he takes this chance to be a real-world hero.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to spend less time in Sacramento, and more time with friends and neighbors. He and I both live in Brentwood. I met him recently and invited him, “man to man,” to join the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles. (The nationwide league began admitting men in 1974. I’m the first male president of the local league, which was founded in 1920.) It would be great to have him over for the league’s Westside Evening Unit meetings at my home. It would be fantastic if he would stand with the league on the death penalty and commute the pending sentences while he still can.

David A. Holtzman is president of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles.

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